Feelings, Facts, and Faith

I don’t always “feel” spiritual.

Whatever that means.

Not only that, sometimes I feel positively unspiritual.

Again, whatever that means.

But maybe you can relate. You pray, but it feels like you’re talking to yourself. You read Scripture, but nothing springs out of the text as a joyful surprise or as a source of conviction. You go to church week after week, but wonder, “Is this it?” Your faith and church just doesn’t seem to be working for you like it once did.

I think if we’re honest, we all experience this sort of thing as Christians. Though possibly in different degrees. For some, the experience feels spiritually debilitating. Others have a short season of the spiritual blues.

There’s a word for this: Blah. Or maybe malaise. At more serious times, melancholy. It feels like God is absent. Theologically, it’s called by some “a dark night of the soul.”

I think of Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you so dejected?
Why are you in such turmoil?

Feeling this way doesn’t mean we should give up on talking to God, let our Bibles gather dust on a bookcase, or stop attending our church. Even when we don’t experience meaning in our usual spiritual practices, we shouldn’t conclude they are meaningless in themselves. Much less should we give up on the Christian faith.

Trust me, I know what it’s like to be spiritually weary, to wonder if God is still doing something in my life and through my ministry. I understand what it means to feel an inward sigh when thinking about all the stuff related to church.

So I suppose the real question is what do we do when we go through this sort of thing?

Start with this. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

Put another way, our feelings don’t always tell us the truth about reality.

I recall Timothy Keller once saying “Doubt your doubts.” You have permission to doubt what your feelings are telling you about God, prayer, church, Jesus, the gospel, and the Christian faith. Feeling like God is absent doesn’t mean he is. Feeling like church is pointless doesn’t mean it is.

I heard a sermon today in which the pastor encouraged us to remember Jesus’ resurrection whenever we find ourselves experiencing a long night. We all need to hear this because we will all experience a long night of one kind or another.

So the first thing is this. Jesus’ resurrection is fact. He who was dead and buried was raised from the grave and is now alive. Whatever I am feeling, I can cling to this. I can cling to him. Because his resurrection means hope. It means eternal life. It means peace and assurance and comfort in the face of life’s difficult times. It means my feelings aren’t always right.

Even so, our feelings are sometimes an indication that there is something which needs attention in our life. So I’m not saying ignore your feelings. But be careful not to let them have their way with you.

It could be there are unsettled spiritual or theological questions rummaging around in your mind. It’s wise to address these questions carefully and prayerfully.

There’s the possibility that some unconfessed sin has created a barrier between yourself and God. Not always, but be aware this might be so. Be willing to fess up; but if you pray and wrack your brain and can’t think of an unconfessed sin, don’t make this into an extra unnecessary burden.

It’s also possible that no matter how hard you think about it, there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for why you feel like you do.

Here are a few suggestions about how to respond to such an experience in no particular order:

  1. Talk to a close Christian friend or your pastor. Speaking your struggles normalizes them and often is a relief. Just having someone listen–really listen–and respond with understanding and grace will help you realize that you’re not alone and that what you’re going through isn’t as weird or unusual as you might think. Maybe find a prayer partner who would be willing to meet with you a few times a month.
  2. Tell God how you’re feeling. You don’t need to clean yourself up or hide your feelings when you pray. Not. At. All. There’s a whole category in the Book of Psalms called psalms of lament, where the psalmists cry out to God with their feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. Pray them as your prayers. Here are a few examples: Psalms 42, 74, 79, 85, and 88.
  3. Mix things up a little. In other words, try doing your devotions differently. Start a prayer journal. Draw on resources like the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer. Find good, theologically sound books that talk about the spiritual life and what it means to have an intimate relationship with God. Go for a prayer walk. Let God speak to you through his beautiful creation. In other words, change your spiritual routine. If all you’ve been using for 20 years is the Our Daily Bread devotionals, maybe it’s time to try something else.
  4. Keep on praying, reading Scripture, and being connected to a worshipping Christian community. These are the basics of the Christian life. Everything else we do connects to these things in some way. Scripture tells us who God is. Prayer is asking God to be who he is in your life. And community reminds us that we don’t do any of this alone. Consider that you might not be the only person in your church feeling the same way. Maybe if you ask, God will lead you to that someone and you can bear one another’s burdens.

I think the most important thing in all of this is to remember that God is with you no matter how you feel. Your emotions don’t determine how God looks at you or feels about you. Countless saints and believers down through the ages have gone through what you’re going through. Some are going through it right now.

Here’s the thing: if you’re going through something like this, it could be an indication that God is inviting you into a deeper experience of his presence. Perhaps he is trying to grow your faith, to help you mature. Actually, I think he’s always trying to do this with us. Finding yourself in a spiritual wilderness might be God prompting you to walk more closely with him. He seeks to discipline us and to remove from us all the other stuff we can find ourselves relying on except him. Moment of truth: sometimes that’s painful for us.

I know there’s a great deal more that could be said by others who are smarter and wiser than me. Still, I hope some of this helps someone in some way and touches upon genuine truth here and there. In the meantime, here’s a Collect for the Spirit of Prayer:

“O Almighty God, you pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Sin, Church Conflict, and the Need for Confession in Public Worship

Over the last five years or so, I have had at least half a dozen pastor friends who have had to leave or resign from their churches on account of various kinds of congregational dysfunction or confict. Even though it’s true that I don’t know many of the details about these individual stories, it almost doesn’t matter. Because while I don’t doubt that there is truth on both sides, my concern is more about how churches and Christians handle these situations. In many cases, these pastors have walked away having to deal with a sort of spiritual PTSD. Whoever’s to blame, these situations leave a lot of wreckage in their wake.

For about 20 years or so now I have been pastoring small, rural Baptist churches. So far I have managed to avoid serious conflicts with the churches I have been privileged to serve. In that way, my family and I have been remarkably blessed. I hope and pray that this remains the case. Yet, I have seen and heard of enough shenanigans, in-fighting, and struggles for power to make me wonder sometimes why anyone still bothers with this thing called “church.” There are moments when it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Then again, there are those who don’t bother with church anymore. A harsh word, a critical remark, or an insensitive comment is all it takes for some to turn tail and run. I can’t say I blame them. How much easier is it to disengage from Christian community than it is to keep pressing forward with it, especially if it’s going to be this painful?

The truth is, despite having said that I’ve not had to deal with serious conflicts in the churches that I’ve pastored, there are ways in which this is still a problem. Bear with me. My point is this: there are people who have left churches while I’ve been pastor, but for the most part I don’t know why they’ve left. Not really. As a pastor you can try to have those awkward conversations with people who have left, but quite often what you’re told is that it has nothing to do with you or anyone at the church. At least that’s my experience. It’s the classic break-up scenario where the one doing the breaking up tries to make the other person feel better: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And I understand. Completely. No one wants a confrontation. No one wants to make anyone else feel badly. Or this is at least the case in the church culture that I’ve been a part of for the last couple of decades. Walking away quietly can seem like the more honourable and respectable approach. No one gets hurt this way. Presumably. Of course, as a pastor it can be incredibly difficult not to take such situations personally. Clergy beyond count have wrestled with these questions in the long watches of the night: “What did I do? What didn’t I do? What could I have done better?”

What this highlights for me is an issue that plagues churches (and I’m sure other communities too) and that is this: an inability to deal maturely with conflict. You can rest assured that whenever a conflict rears its ugly head in a congregation it will often be handled poorly. This is because growing in spiritual and emotional maturity has never really been that much of a priority in churches. Or we equate intellectual knowledge of theology and the Bible with spiritual maturity. Our discipleship has been largely from the neck up. So and so knows so much about the Bible. They’re such a mature and wise believer. Maybe. But maybe not.

I think when it comes to sorting out our thoughts on this stuff, there are a few points that need to be made. One, there will be conflict in churches. Let’s face facts. Stick enough people in a church community and have them spend enough time worshipping and working together, someone will eventually get bent out of shape, annoyed, frustrated and, yes, even hurt. This is going to happen. Count on it.

Facing this is important. Think about it. How many times have you heard people express dismay or disgust at how Christians have behaved? How many people have left churches precisely because someone else in the church has been mean or unkind to them and the shock of this pushed them away? To say nothing of unintentional slights or careless words spoken in haste from otherwise caring people.

Years ago, I was sitting in Tim Horton’s and I overheard a conversation. One person said to another, “You should be in church on Sunday.” The other person said, “Why? I’m just as good as anyone in church.” As if being in church is supposedly for those who are better than others or if the point was simply outward behaviourial change.

But being a Christian and therefore going to church is not about sin management. If it were, the church writ large would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

However, this leads us to the second thing: we are sinners. 1 John 1:8 reminds us: If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Accepting Jesus, so to speak, does not change this reality. Now, this reality is not an excuse. We shouldn’t sin so that grace may abound, no. Just because we are tempted to sin is no reason to throw up our hands in resignation, proceed with our sin, and presume God’s forgiveness. But neither should we be altogether surprised when someone who confesses Christ as Lord actually sins–and perhaps against you.

Being able to acknowledge that we are sinners in constant need of grace, mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, even outside of specific conflicts, positions us to anticipate those moments when even followers of Jesus fail to love one another. Expecting the Christians around us to be perfect is a recipe for disappointment in the church.

Think of it this way. When we sin, heinously or not, God is not surprised. Our sins of action or inaction do not take him off guard. Why? Because he knows who we are. He knows who I am. He knows who you are. And when it comes to churches, he also knows how the combination of these people in this place will lead to problems. Jesus knows your church, both its strengths and failings.

All this to make clear that my sin reverberates through the church much like a rock thrown in still water. There is, pardon the pun, a ripple effect.

Indeed, that is in part why we gather as a church. We need constant reminding of the good news. We need help to live as Jesus calls us to live. We need confession and absolution when we fail. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to uphold us in prayer, to admonish us, and to encourage us. It is through the ministry of the Body of Christ that God intends to heal us and make us whole by his Holy Spirit. Simply put, we need ongoing repentance and forgiveness. Thankfully, God is more than willing. 1 John 1:9 assures us: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

But when we are unwilling or unable for whatever reason to own our sin, and to accept that our fellow Christians are also sinners, conflicts in the church, big or small, become the very thing we are ill-equipped to handle with honesty, mercy and wisdom.

It strikes me as revealing that in many churches, we speak much about the cross, about redemption, even forgiveness, but we never actually confess sin to God, much less to one another in our public worship. Yet in James 5:16 we read: Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

This is a problem. Much of the church culture with which I am familiar is deeply uncomfortable with the biblical practice of confessing our sins to one another, primarily, I think, because we largely don’t feel safe doing so. But I think this is because we simply haven’t found ways of doing so that are genuine and safe.

This is my next point. I think there needs to be some means of acknowledging in public worship our sins against God and one another.

Now, it’s fair to ask: Is confessing sin in our public worship important? Why can I not confess my own sins in the quiet of my home, away from the judgmental gaze of the person sitting behind me in church on a Sunday morning? More to the point, doesn’t Jesus tell me to pray privately?

Yes, Jesus does instruct his followers to pray in private. Here’s what he actually says:

Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6

But the context, as always in Scripture, is vital. Jesus was contrasting sound spiritual practice with the sort that sought the reward of public recognition. And there is a world of difference between praying for the applause of others and confessing our sins to one another. Consider what Paul writes:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Colossians 3:12-14

We can’t obey Scripture like this in the privacy of our home away from other believers.

Moreover, the problem with restricting all confession to our private prayers is that this neglects the very real fact that my sin doesn’t only affect me. We tend to have a very individualistic outlook even as Christians, given we are called to accountability with other believers. So we conclude: If no one knows my sin, how can it affect anyone else? Yet, even my most private sin impacts others. I don’t exist in a spiritual vacuum. My relationship with God is not cordoned off from the relationships I have with the people in my church. Whenever something is off between myself and my Lord, things will be off in how I relate to people in church. All of our sin is relational, both vertically and horizontally.

Take, for example, a sin of omission: the neglect of prayer and Bible reading. I would think of this as sin because I am failing to avail myself of two primary means of grace God provides so I can draw nearer to him and become more Christlike, which is his will for me. And if I am not doing this as a member of Christ’s church, then I am also unable to bless other people in the church. If I am not a prayerful person (or hopefully and gradually becoming a more prayerful person, which is where most of us are), then this will profoundly affect my participation on any church committee, board, or ministry team. For instance, I may want to push for a decision that needs more prayer. Or to put it another way, someone who is being more deeply formed by their time in Scripture may bring wisdom to the table someone who neglects time in Scripture cannot.

One means of this is to include a unison prayer of confession. Of course as I say this, let me confess: as a pastor I have not yet led our congregation to do this. In my pastoral prayers, I have often (but not always) included such words of repentance, an acknowledgement of our sin, and an assurance of forgiveness. This is not the same, however, as giving the congregation an opportunity to say such words themselves. That matters.

Take this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as an example:

Almighty God and Father, we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, raise us up to serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Praying this or a similar prayer in public worship is not only a matter of confessing particular sins of which we are aware. I sin without always being aware of it. I don’t always decide to sin; I am sinful. Since I am a sinful person, everything I am and do is tainted by sinfulness. That is, sin concerns more than discrete sinful actions; it concerns my innate tendency to choose sinfully.

I think such congregational prayers would allow us to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners and our relationships with one another stand in regular need of spiritual repair. Incorporating prayers of confession and assurances of forgiveness into our public worship also means we needn’t divulge personal information in an indiscrete way. There may be occasions when confession of specific sins during times of public worship is actually important and necessary, but in such cases leaders need to act with sensitivity, wisdom, grace, and discernement. Confession is meant to lead to healing, not to deeper shame or embarrassment.

Here’s the thing: I am not saying that simply praying such words, however we choose to do so, in our congregational worship is a silver bullet against the poor handling of sin and conflict in the church. But we are still responsible as brothers and sisters in Christ to cultivate a spiritual environment where we can have a mature assessment of our mutual sinfulness and deeper appreciation of God’s grace in Christ. Doing this in community is how we work the gospel into our relationships. The church needs the leaven of humility and honesty to be healthy and effective. Because it’s simply not enough for those of us who are Christians, who confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, to try and deal with sin outside of congregational life. This risks an evasion of the very reality we are seeking to acknowledge: that we are indeed sinners against God and one another and that God in Christ has made possible reconciliation.

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 3: How the Psalms Teach Us to Be Ourselves in the Presence of God

How open are you about expressing your emotions? Do you typically hide your feelings from others? Or do you find it difficult to put how you are feeling into words? Maybe you’re not someone who is, as they say, in touch with their feelings. Perhaps you find the outward expression of emotions–be it anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, or fear–awkward and uncomfortable, even around those closest to you. It’s possible your upbringing trained you to see letting your feelings show as inappropriate. Our specific culture and family of origin play a profound role in this sort of thing.

What about in the context of your relationship with God? When you pray, are you the sort of person who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you couch your prayers in especially reverent language? Not that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but you get my point. That is, as we enter God’s presence intentionally with our prayers, what role, if any, do our emotions play? Put another way: is it somehow irreverent or inappropriate to come before God with feelings of anger or sadness, weariness or worry? Do we need to compose ourselves first, so to speak?

To get some answers to these questions, there is no better way than to turn to the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayer book and hymnal of the Bible. Even a cursory reading of a handful of psalms demonstrates that the psalmists did not hide their emotions from God in their prayers. Well-known pastor John Piper says that “One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions.” He’s exactly right. And because of this the Psalms give us permission to do likewise.

So let’s look at some examples. First, in Psalm 25:16 we read this: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted. Here the psalmist, David, is honest about his loneliness. I am alone, he prays. While our lives are much different than his, each of us knows loneliness. But for some, loneliness is an especially profound struggle. Whatever David’s reasons for loneliness are, he feels wholly free to bring what he’s feeling to God. He genuinely believes God cares about how he feels and can do something about it. Turn to me and be gracious to me, David asks.

This example alone reveals how we are free to come to God and tell him how we feel. We don’t do so in order to provide God with information about our lives; no, we do so to draw on the comfort of his presence, to seek grace from him.

Grief is another example. David helps us there too:

I am weary from my groaning;
with my tears I dampen my bed
and drench my couch every night.
My eyes are swollen from grief;
they grow old because of all my enemies.

Psalm 6:6-7

Again, for our purposes here the circumstances of David’s grief are not our chief concern. Instead, take note of how vulnerable he allows himself to be in the presence of God. There is no gap between how he feels and what he prays.

Let’s not forget who David is, either. David was a king and therefore a military and political leader. He knew how to handle himself on the field of battle. He took down Goliath as a young man, when the entire Israelite army cowered in fear.

At the same time, David was a poet, and a man after God’s own heart. He is the author of the majority of the Psalms. He was incredibly self-aware of what was going on in his heart. He was willing to dance before God with abandon, unconcerned with what others thought about such devotion. He had no problem coming before God with honesty, with being real or authentic, as we might say.

So David wept, and he brought his tears to God in prayer. So can we. I love what Gandalf says at the end of The Return of the King: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Here’s the thing. When as people of faith we experience the more difficult emotions, what do we do with them? What do we do about them? Do we pretend they’re not real? And what if we experience a difficult emotion about God himself? Consider this prayer from David:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:1

Here we see disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, doubt. A prayer in the form of questions. I wonder how many Christians find themselves experiencing a feeling like this, but at the same time feel as though they cannot express this to God. And all because doing so is not truly reverent or proper.

I think that when we have such feelings of disappointment or uncertainty about God, and do not allow those feelings into our prayers, it negatively affects our faith and our relationship with God. Think of hiding something you feel deeply towards a loved one from that loved one. If a husband or wife, for instance, hides their feelings of disappointment in their spouse from their spouse, how might this impact their intimacy, their trust in one another? At the very least, the feeling doesn’t simply disappear because we keep it to ourselves. It will continue to eat at us. At worst, it results in an unhealthy emotional distance. In such a situation it’s worth asking ourselves: “Why am I avoiding sharing how I feel? Don’t I trust that my relationship–my spouse–can handle it? What does it say about our relationship if I don’t think they can?”

Let me be bold and say that the same holds for our relationship with God. If I avoid bringing my feelings to God in prayer, including feelings of disappointment with him, what does this reveal about how I feel regarding God’s trustworthiness? Am I afraid of being that honest in his presence? If so, why? What about doing so makes me uncomfortable?

The difficult emotions don’t end there, of course. Psalm 137 expresses profound grief over the exile of Israel to Babylon. Through exile Israel lost her identity as a nation. She found herself in utter ruin and despair. For this reason this Psalm includes some of the most difficult words in all of Scripture.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who pays you back
what you have done to us.
Happy is he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:1, 8-9

These words are in the Bible. We can’t avoid them. Psalm 137 is perhaps the most angry and hopeless psalm of lament in the entire psalter. The words are violent and vengeful. And not without reason, considering what Israel had been through. The question is what do we do with a psalm like this?

Psalm 137 isn’t alone. One of my favourite passages in all of Scripture is Psalm 139, but there are some verses in this psalm that seem almost out of place. They go like this:

God, if only you would kill the wicked—
you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me—
who invoke you deceitfully.
Your enemies swear by you falsely.
Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you,
and detest those who rebel against you?
I hate them with extreme hatred;
I consider them my enemies.

Psalm 139:19-22

I’m not going to pretend I have easy answers for how to apply such words to our lives as we seek to follow Jesus. I do not. I’m not altogether sure how to square such poetry with the biblical admonitions to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

But I think there is something we can say.

Take note that while the psalmists in 137 and in 139 are expressing a profound anger, they bring this anger to God. In other words, these psalms are not teaching us to act out on our anger. We’re not being instructed to take vengeance on our enemies or those who have done us harm. No, we are being shown that the best place to bring such angry and vengeful emotions is to God in prayer.

In fact, praying such words of angry lament are an act of deep trust that God is a God of justice and righteousness. By asking God to kill the wicked the psalmist is effectively leaving the matter in God’s hands. Such prayers become, therefore, a safe place to vent our most troubling thoughts and emotions, a prayerful space where we can process our feelings that justice has been violated and something needs to be done–something only God himself can do.

Now, if we find ourselves wondering why we would ever be in a position to pray like this, might I suggest this is because we live in an especially privileged position? For those, however, who personally know the realities of injustice, such prayers may indeed be an important part of addressing their circumstances. Consider that approximately 70% of the Psalms include words of lament–what Bono of U2 once refered to as the blues music of the Bible:

That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God— “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?”

Bono

There are other difficult emotions, of course. Fear would be another. But in every case, the Psalms show us that we are free to come before God with the whole of our humanity. In doing so, our intimacy with God grows and deepens, and becomes more honest, grounded, and resilient.

The late Eugene Peterson says this about the Psalms:

Praying isn’t being nice before God. The Psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.

Eugene Peterson

I think he’s absolutely right, both about the honesty of the Psalms but also about how difficult it is for us to be honest in our prayers.

Now, after all of this, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Psalms only give voice to difficult emotions. Not at all. There is also joy and celebration, thanksgiving and praise, all through the Psalms.

You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and new wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
to declare your faithful love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
with a ten-stringed harp
and the music of a lyre.

Psalm 92:1-3

That’s the other thing. When it comes to prayer, our neglect is of an equal opportunity sort. We’re also not so open to being effusive in our joy and thanks. Often even our praise to God is muted. And it shouldn’t be!

I know that when it comes to my church experience over the years, emotions have been less expressed than not. I have been a Baptist pastor for nearly 20 years, after all. Like I said at the start, this in part is because of our culture. Travel to churches in other parts of the world (or to other churches!) and you won’t necessarily see believers holding in their emotions during prayer and worship.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be about what we see but what God sees. Because what we’re talking about is being honest–completely vulnerable–before God. In other words, we’re talking about being ourselves in the presence of God, in all of our messiness and brokenness, including when we pray. Actually, especially when we pray. Because if the Psalms teach us anything about prayer, it is this.

Lent

Having grown up Catholic, I am quite familiar with what it means to observe Lent. Though I confess that in recent years I have not observed it. Not because I am a Baptist pastor, but more likely because I simply haven’t wanted to bother. I confess that I am not an exemplar with respect to spiritual or even more general personal discipline.

It’s a struggle.

So while I am familiar with what Lent means, I’ve never really taken it that seriously. At least not beyond the occasional giving up or fasting from something. Things like junkfood or sweets. You know, the usual culprits.

This year both my wife and I have decided to be intentional about entering the Lenten season. For my part, I am giving up TV: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, YouTube, and DVDs. While it may not be for you, for me it’s a thing.

But that’s not enough. I have to do something in place of watching TV. That is, when I would normally be inclined to watch a show, instead my intention is to pray and/or read. When I say read, I mean the Bible (of course) but not only the Bible. I have shelves full of wonderful theological and spiritual books. I even have some devotional books that include reflections on Lent itself. I may even indulge in some fiction.

When we think of fasting, we most often think of food. But we can fast from any number of things. Think about social media. Think about getting off Facebook for Lent. Consider a fast from complaining. When you’re tempted to gripe about something, ask God for help to be thankful instead.

The reason for fasting is to refrain from something you want and would normally allow yourself to have. Or to fast from something that adds little value to your life and only wastes time; and then to replace it with an activity that reminds you of your dependence on God.

Sometimes growing closer to God requires holy subtraction. Such holy subtraction may give us time and opportunity for more life-giving things.

Or perhaps you need some holy addition. That is, prayer, Scripture reading, and other spiritual disciplines have little to no place in your life. Maybe Lent is the time to take the time to begin your day with The Lord’s Prayer and to ask God for help to see him at work throughout your day.

Lent is the season in the church calendar that leads up to Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Resurrection (Easter) Sunday. Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas. It begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. It’s an invitation to mark our time and routine differently, to allow God’s word and our relationship with him to determine our daily rhythm.

One piece of advice I would give, especially if Lent is entirely new to you, is this: keep it simple. Pick one small thing. Remember the purpose is to allow that one thing to draw you to God, to remind you of Jesus.

I could say more, but for now I won’t. Besides, I have forty more days.

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 2: Prayer Priorities from Paul

In my last post on learning to pray from Scripture, which you can find here, I talked about how the Bible reveals the truth about the God to whom we pray and why who God is matters to our prayers. This time around I want us to consider what Scripture teaches us about prayer priorities. To do so, I’m going to discuss a few passages from the letters of Paul.

Now, before I get there let me first draw attention to The Lord’s Prayer once again. It’s no coincidence that when Jesus teaches these words to his disciples that he begins with petitions that concern God’s glory, kingdom, and will; and only after that does he teach us to pray for our needs. If we are followers of Jesus, then God’s concerns and priorities ought to be ours also. Think about Jesus’ words elsewhere:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Matthew 6:33

Becoming a Christian, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, means putting him first in our lives. And this means, in turn, praying in accordance with God’s purposes and desires for our lives.

But if we wonder what exactly this looks like, then turning to Paul’s letters is especially helpful. You see, Paul wrote most of his letters to churches, to small communities of believers, many of which he started on his missionary travels. Therefore, he writes with the heart of a pastor who wants these Christians to grow and mature in their faith. This is why when you read the majority of Paul’s letters, there is a prayer at the very beginning. He shares how he has prayed and how he will continue to pray.

Since these churches consisted largely of newly converted first-generation believers in Jesus, from both Jewish and Pagan backgrounds, Paul wrote his letters to correct, guide, and support them as they lived our their faith in decidedly un-Christian territory. These new disciples didn’t have two or three, much less several, generations of Christians and church life to draw on for wisdom. It was new ground they were plowing. They needed wise and firm counsel if they were going to remain faithful and obedient.

So even though Paul wrote these letters and prayers to first-generation churches, we can glean a great deal from him about how to prioritize our prayers. As Paul puts elsewhere:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

When Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is profitable for teaching, it stands to reason that this includes teaching on prayer. And though Paul’s prayers in his letters are not direct teaching, we are, I believe, to learn from his example. Put simply, Paul’s prayers in his letters show us how to pray for ourselves, one another, and our churches.

So here is one example:

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:3-5, 9-11

First note why Paul is thankful. The Philippians bring him joy because of their partnership in the gospel. Every time he prays for them, gratitude wells up in his heart. He declared the gospel to them and now they are living it out. For this he is glad. And because he knows God is the one who has made all of this possible, it becomes a part of his prayers.

Paul then tells them how he continues to pray for them. Though we could say a great many things about his intercession on behalf of the Philippians, we can simply say that Paul prays here for the spiritual growth of these believers. He wants their love to grow in concert with a deepening grasp of the gospel; for their lives to bear the fruit of the Spirit and of witness; and for their entire perspective to be Christ-centered, oriented towards the day when Jesus will return.

In other words, he prays, as Jesus teaches in The Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done in the lives of the disciples in Philippi. Because such lives are what hallow God’s name.

In case we think Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is an anamoly, let’s look at another example. This one is from Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. 

Colossians 1:3-5

Once again, Paul expresses his thanks to God for the faith of those to whom he brought the gospel. He is grateful for how the good news has changed their lives, and how they are showing love to one another.

I never hear anyone praying like this. For some reason, I don’t even pray like this in church when leading a pastoral prayer.

Maybe we should pray that we would have more and more reasons to pray like Paul here. Either that God would give us eyes of faith or that his kingdom would come and his will would be done more clearly in our midst!

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 

Colossians 1:9-12

How does Paul pray for the Colossian Christians here? He asks God to give them knowledge of his will, that they would grow in wisdom and spiritual understanding, that they would live lives worthy of Jesus, that they would bear spiritual fruit, that they would be strengthened by God so that they can endure hardship with patience, and that through all this they would have an attitude of joyful gratitude towards God.

Another example of prayer in Paul I love is from Ephesians:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

Let’s be honest. Is that not a beautiful prayer? And look at what he’s praying for on behalf of this church. He wants their faith to be firm and he wants them to grasp more and more the height and depth of God’s love for them. Imagine how an answer to such a prayer would transform many who attend church today. Imagine if our intellectual knowledge that God loves us would more fully descend and fill our hearts. I’m not sure we’d know what hit us.

Of course, I suspect some of us may read Paul’s prayers here and elsewhere and think, wow, I could never pray like that. Perhaps we find his example a little intimidating. Maybe we think Paul is a little wordy. His prayer is, after all, quite a theological and spiritual mouthful.

But think of it this way. We don’t have to pray exactly like Paul to learn how to pray from Paul. Ask yourself: what is Paul asking God to do in the lives of the Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians? Isn’t he asking God to enable them to grow spiritually, to become increasingly mature followers of Jesus? Doesn’t he want these believers to live more Christ-centred and therefore joyful, thankful, and faithful lives? And isn’t he asking God to sustain them in faith whatever circumstances or troubles come their way?

Now, let me ask an obvious question: isn’t this how we ought to be praying for one another as followers of Jesus? Not only that, but shouldn’t this be our first concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yet, is it? I humbly suggest that prayers like this are almost entirely absent from church prayer meetings, church worship services, our prayer request lists, and pastoral prayers (and, yes, that’s on me too). Instead, our prayer lists almost entirely consist of everyday matters, especially for health concerns and people’s difficult situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray that someone would experience recovery from an illness or that our friend or family member would see a turnaround in a challenging relationship. Or whatever. Certainly we should pray for these things.

But should those things be our priority?

Well-known pastor and author Timothy Keller says this about Paul’s prayers: “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.”

No prayers for physical healing or a change to trying situations. None. Nada. Zip.

Yet prayer permeates Paul’s letters. His passionate, loving concern for the churches he writes overflows naturally in prayer. The reality of the good news, of the centrality of Jesus and our salvation in him, fills his vision. Nothing is more important.

Do such concerns–does such passion–fill our prayers for one another?

Do we pray for our fellow church members, that their faith would grow, that they would experience God’s love more deeply, that they would become more resilient as life throws curveball after unexpected curveball?

Or instead are we so focused on the here and now that we neglect such petitions and forget that our real lives will take place on the other side of Jesus’ return in eternity?

What does a lack of prayers like those in Paul’s letters say about us, our churches, and our priorities? What does it tell us about what we value most?

I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on anyone. Including myself. But there’s a difference between experiencing guilt and experiencing conviction. We don’t only need to experience conviction with respect to obvious things we’ve done wrong. We need to experience conviction about the good, spiritual priorities that we tend to neglect.

Here’s the thing: what does such neglect reveal about what we believe about God? What does it say about what we believe God can and desires to do in our lives and in the lives of our churches?

Imagine for a moment if more–maybe even most–believers in most churches began praying by following Paul’s example in his letters. What might God do? Well, I think the apostle Paul helps us there too. And with his words I will end.

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Next time I will talk about how we can bring all of ourselves to God in prayer.